MALTHUS AND LIMITS OF POPULATION GROWTH

The world is starting to experience perhaps the worst crisis that it has ever seen: climate change. We seriously need to reconsider the way we organize our economy and production for a sustainable life. However, it seems like our politicians are not willing enough to apply what is necessary due to political and economic concerns. Just when we were facing this situation, COVID 19 crisis started, making our view of the future even more pessimistic. I believe it is necessary to visit the views of Thomas Robert Malthus, perhaps the most pessimistic economist that has ever lived. This way we can understand how actually our living standards and future can go well when we expect the worst. 

The world population was roughly 1 billion when Malthus was writing in the 1700s and he thought that it was impossible for the population to experience substantial growth. Production and GDP could increase for a limited amount of time, enhancing the overall living standards. He argued that if living standards rose, people would have more children for more agricultural production. This would mean that even if the overall GDP and production increased, the GDP per capita would not eventually change. It would even go down to the subsistence level as a higher population would put pressure on the already limited resources. Malthus argued that although the population could grow exponentially resources would only grow arithmetically – causing a shortage of resources. This would cause famines and diseases, preventing population growth as this would cause an increase in mortality rate and decrease infertility. The decreasing population would mean that limited resources would again be enough, increasing the GDP per capita, production, and living standards. This would again result in a tendency to have more children. This whole situation is referred to as the Malthusian Cycle and actually describes how things were before the Industrial Revolution for thousands of years. However, the Malthusian Cycle proved not to be valid as we have observed a massive population growth during the 20th century, starting in the 19th century. 

I think there are two reasons why the population theory of Malthus is not applicable to the world of 2020, two reasons why the Malthusian cycle was broken after the 1800s: technology and demographic transition. 

To increase their profits, using more advanced and efficient technological applications in agriculture was beneficial for people in the 1800s. Using selective breeding for animals and creating machinery for agriculture were among techniques that were used for advancement. This substantially increased the yield of the agricultural industry, meaning that it was now possible to provide more resources to the increasing population. Other advancements in technology and medicine also significantly decreased child mortality. As living standards rose people started to have more children, and due to significant technological advancements, this did not put pressure on resources, not causing famines. As the population grew even larger after the Second World War, more advanced technological improvements were created to feed this population. GMOs to increase the yield of corps and industrial facilities to produce animal products were created as it was possible to generate mass amounts of profits using these technologies. 

Demographic transition was another important reason why the Malthusian Cycle was broken. As the majority of their children were not dying before reaching adulthood now with the aid of technology, families had the opportunity of having fewer children. Besides, urban families do not have to rely on physical labor for income, thus they do not have that much of an incentive to have many children. The role of contraception should not be underestimated as well, as it made having a baby a decision for the family. If we examine today’s Europe or Canada where an aging population is regarded as an indicator of development, we can also see that as women’s role in society change and they receive higher education, their predisposition to have children also decreases. The cost of raising a child in modern societies is also very high, meaning families are now having fewer children as their living standards increase. 

This tendency of having fewer children points out to the fact that as the world is becoming more developed, the rate of population growth will decrease. I believe this is a transition that is taking place in all of the countries-though they are at different levels of it. For example, my grandfather had 9 siblings in 1945 but now I have only one brother in 2020. The problem of the rate of population increase will become a smaller problem in time as it is slowing down (even if it takes centuries for the whole world). 

I also think that as it has a great potential for profit in it, new technologies to catch up with our depleting resources will be created. For example, the effectiveness and range of usage for green energy will increase as the necessary technology will be created with the aim of profit. I saw a series on Netflix called ‘Explained’ and one of its episodes was about the consumption of meat – how our consumption habit is becoming unsustainable. There are already people who are changing the effectiveness of production facilities and who are also trying to create artificial meat to prevent a scenario of the shortage of meat. I think there will be other successful attempts to cope with the problem of decreasing resources. Maybe the work of Tesla could also be regarded as such an attempt. These people see an opportunity for profit in applying newer technologies. These newer technologies increase our efficiency in using natural resources. 

To sum up, I think that the decreasing rate of population growth and our ability to create new technologies combined will prevent dystopian scenarios from becoming reality as we will eventually create ways of sustainable development. Newer technologies will be applied to feed a much less population to have a sustainable relationship with our environment. I hope that my viewpoint is not very optimistic and the rate that new technologies are created and adopted are actually enough to catch the rate that the resources are being used.


References:

1- Acemoglu, Daron, et al. Macroeconomics. Pearson, 2019.

2- https://peakoil.com/generalideas/new-limits-to-growth-revive-malthusian-fears

3-https://www.d.umn.edu/cla/faculty/jhamlin/4111/Malthus/Thomas%20Robert%20Malthus.htm

4- https://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/03/25/malthus-was-right/

Didem Özçakır
Boğaziçi University, Department of Economics
Posts created 3

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